I was born by the mountains. I was born in the mist. Who knows exactly how or when I came to be. All I know is that it was long ago. And that time is best measured in generations and not in years.
I was born from people’s lips, as they gathered around the fireside, my words spilling out in the same breath as their old stories and tales. Words that mingle as they drift over the flames, forming and reforming. And in this way, I am forever being renewed.
And so it is. Generation to generation. From village to village. I am cast through space and time like pollen sailing in the wind.
For much of the time I lie dormant, a seed nestled amongst the hidden valleys of the mind, my soul seamless with circuitry, my existence a constellation of electrical impulses. I wait patiently, for soon my time will come.
It is the stove that draws me out. Like the night draws out the jackal. Instinct transformed into action, I emerge from the subconscious, and begin to work and guide hands that are wizened with age and life.
Now I am no longer an idea, all abstract and concealed. I am a verb. I am alive. I am presence. Eggs are beaten. Oil is smoking. Bread is pulled and torn.
A little child is watching as her grandmother ambles around the firepit. Ancient mountains loom large in the distance, solemn witnesses to this forthcoming act of inheritance.
The child observes. She studies the movements. She notes the precise point at which her grandmother refrains from stirring the eggs. And the requisite sizzle they make as they impact on the hot oil. A faint billow of steam rises up; it reminds her of the mist that meanders through the mountains.
Together they sit and eat. Little is said between them, but the child is enthralled.
She loves how the eggs are so light and feathery, all fluffed up like the ripples of clouds that congregate over the jagged peaks outside. Underneath them, shredded samun bread, soaked earth-black by a dousing of sweet date syrup. A smattering of walnuts, poppy and sesame seeds adorn the top.
This is what I am born to be. Helka doshâw. Eggs with molasses made from dates or grapes. A dish honed over generations. A dish to stave off the mountain cold.
She doesn’t realise it then, but as the child eats, she is consuming the culture and geography of the Kurdish homeland. A proud land of peaks and plains.
A land however that finds itself subsumed into that of others – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – who, through the fortuitous winds of history, have become its governors and overlords. The child meanwhile just enjoys the eggs. My eggs.
Time and again she joins her grandmother as she cooks, and each time she watches on assiduously. Nothing is missed.
During those visits, I can feel myself drawn into her: it is inevitable, for her thrill at this dish is as tangible as static. And when her mind finally invites me in, it’s like a host welcoming a guest into their home.
I settle myself into a cosy nook in her mind, gently testing out the environs, running my fingertips along the mental fittings and furnishings, gently pressing to evaluate their feel and give. Yes, this place feels right. She will look after me well.
Years later, even after her grandmother has long departed, she still continues to remember those cherished moments by the stove. In so doing, she senses her grandmother’s presence. Her food. Her love.
Now a girl of thirteen, she begins helping out her elders in the kitchen. Chopping the onions. Salting the meat.
Then one day, something tugs deep inside of her. Something very specific. A sizzle of oil and a billow of steam, mist meandering through the mountains. She reaches in and finds an unexpected treasure from long ago.
At first, her initial actualizations of me are rather tentative and uncertain. She stirs the eggs a little too vigorously; she is perhaps a tad too eager with the molasses.
But soon enough she masters me. She learns how to crack the shells so the yolks and whites drop neatly into the bowl, whisking them round and round. She revels in how they eventually envelope each other, like two desert snakes swallowing each other’s tail.
And when she pours them over the stove, she delights in how they curdle in front of her very eyes. One moment liquid, the next solid: she notes the transformation and imagines how one day, perhaps things will change for her people too.
Over many years, she seeks me out. And each time I would reward her. I become a loyal companion and a fulcrum in the family routine. A reassuring presence and a bringer of joy.
She grows into a young woman. And I stand with her throughout. All seems so well. But within a heartbeat, the cowbells fall silent. For out of the mist, Saddam’s soldiers have arrived.
They proceed to subjugate the land with guns and gas and callousness. The young woman and her family have no choice but to pack up and flee. Just in time too: by the end, there is little left of the town.
They keep moving, always moving. Troops and tanks roam everywhere, and the family must press through the cover of night to avoid them. Still, the bombs continue to fall all around them.
After nine days of trudging, they finally reach a border – one that neither they nor their kin truly recognise, but at this point in time it becomes a vital shield. So into Iran they slip, taking me along with them.
Up ahead by the roadside, they are duly greeted by their distant family, their warm embraces awash with gratitude and relief. Back at their new home, they are welcomed with a platter of kalana bread, stuffed with cheese and wild herbs from the local hills. The young woman will never forget the taste: it will forever remind her of safety.
For four years, the family make a home for themselves in Iranian Kurdistan. Throughout that time, the young woman likes to regularly visit the kitchens of her cousins and aunts, picking up recipes and ideas as a bumblebee flits between the flowers of the mountains.
After losing the home she once knew, and with a future that’s full of uncertainty and foreboding, she finds solace in the familiar rhythms and rituals of the stove. It reminds her too of her grandmother, whom she continues to miss deeply.
One day, she watches on as a cousin toasts and grinds cumin seeds, sprinkling them over a hot pan where slivers of onion and minced lamb are browning. She makes note of the texture and the release of a heady fragrance that wafts around the stove. She observes how it’s then spooned out and encased with a layer of rice paste; she finds the way it’s cradled so oddly soothing.
The patties are then moulded into little torpedo shapes and deep-fried until crisp. “Kubba” – she scrawls into a little notebook that she’s brought along from home. She proceeds to write out the whole recipe, making sure not to miss a single detail.
At another house, she observes more members of her family cook okra with beans, and finds herself curious how, rather than the black-eyed beans of her childhood, they use green beans that have been dried under the summer sun. She nibbles on some coriander leaves used to garnish the stew, and instantly admires its vivid citrus flavour. Again, she notes it all down.
At the next home, she learns how to coat the aubergines under ash on the firepit, leaving them long enough so they capture the smoke and security of the hearth. She sees how they are then pureed into a smooth paste, and notes the precise texture that is achieved.
She carefully documents all these recipes, and in so doing, her little notebook becomes more than just an impromptu cookbook, but a record of her flight, a reflection of the hospitality of her kin, and a rich testament to the culinary traditions of her people.
She toys with the idea of adding me onto those pages too. No need, she dismisses. I am already so imprinted onto her soul, there is no risk of misplacing me. And besides, it would only occupy precious space: who knew what other recipes would need collecting?
Sure enough, as the seasons turn, so do the pages of the notebook; they become ever more laden with ink and crammed with recipes. She meets a young man, and cooks the recipes for him too. Including me – helka doshâw. Before long, they decide to marry.
Together they return home to Iraq, but again the situation soon becomes unstable. They seek sanctuary in Turkey, but find this an unwelcoming place for Kurdish refugees; life is a constant struggle. In the end they need to get out, and eventually they find their way to what will become their new home. London.
Food is never far from her heart however, even at this most desperate of times. She sets up a roadside stall, and earns a scratch living from selling sandwiches amid the concrete and fumes of the Elephant & Castle roundabout.
Initially she makes the stock fillings that Londoners are so accustomed to. Then, as the business grows, she starts throwing in a sprinkling of za’atar here, or a pinch of sumac there. That’s how to liven up a cheese sandwich! – she reckons.
Indeed, the locals agree and queues start to form. An idea suddenly comes to mind. She tentatively starts to cook the recipes from that old tattered notebook, as well as those from her grandmother’s stove, and starts selling them alongside the sandwiches – kubba, dolma, and a rich stew of okra and beans.
Word spreads. The queues become longer. Such is the success, she soon opens a café in Camberwell, and calls it Nandine, named after the Kurdish word for ‘kitchen’. She expands the menu to include more of those dishes.
The Kurdish people do not have a homeland. So she makes special effort to make her place feel like a home. She decorates it with artefacts and icons from her childhood, as well as the knitted pouches that Kurdish shepherds traditionally use to carry their provisions.
Then one day, whilst in Nandine’s kitchen, she abruptly conjures me from the depths of her mind. She cracks the eggs and pours the oil, heating it until it starts to smoke. Now there is that sizzle, and then a faint billow of steam: it still reminds her of the mist that meandered between the mountains.
Bread is pulled and shredded, and soaked with sweet date syrup, a comforting pillow for those fluffy eggs to rest. She throws a sprinkling of poppy seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts, and promptly lifts the dish and lays it gently on a table in front of a customer, a regular whom she trusts to test this dish.
“Eggy dates!” she announces.
And in those eggy dates are not just the history and geography of the Kurdish people, but the story of one Kurdish woman in particular: her infatuation with food and cooking, her love and devotion for her grandmother, her experience of displacement and hospitality and displacement again, and her utter determination to champion the cause of her people.
Her name is Pary Baban. And me? I am the recipe for helka doshâw.
Firstly, a heartfelt thank you to Pary. It was such a privilege spending the best part of a morning with her at Nandine, learning of her family and experiences, and then getting to write this piece. I am very conscious that it’s very much her story, and that of her family, and so it was really important for me to capture it as sensitively and meaningfully as I could.
I’m also mindful that times are tough for so many right now – having a family business put on hold is such a challenge, and my thoughts are very much with the Baban family as they try to ride through this lockdown. Thanks to their wonderful food and hospitality, they have built up such a devoted and loyal following, and I am sure this will make a big difference (- and do feel free to shout out in the Comments if you’re a regular!)
I’m certainly not the only one to have been captivated by Pary and her story. Sophie Reid has written a whole thesis on Nandine for her Masters degree, no less! It is a tremendous piece of work, and I just loved its exploration of various themes, including: the family as torch-bearers and ‘translators’ of Kurdish food; the act of cooking as a living tradition; the Kurdish reverence for the mountains; and on homeliness as both a reflection of hospitality and of political expression.
Finally, for more family stories of food and migration, please feel free to check out my own family story, and that of my friend Shahnaz Ahsan, in our collaborative piece: Curry & Kneidlach.